Bellator 162: "Shlemenko vs. Grove" comes to FedEx Forum in Memphis, Tenn., this Friday night (Oct. 21, 2016), featuring a main event between former Middleweight champion Alexander Shlemenko -- who will attempt to re-ignite his Bellator career -- against a resurgent Kendall Grove.
Earlier in the night, another key Middleweight fight between Hisaki Kato and A.J. Matthews should grab a few eyeballs. Kato, a striking sensation, knows nothing but knockouts -- six finishes (and two losses the same way). When he wins with one, it's a highlight reel. And he has even shown the ability to transfer those skills to kickboxing. Matthews, meanwhile, is consistent in his inconsistency, trading two-win and two-loss streaks back-to-back for five consecutive years. That pattern does predicts he's due for another win, though, something Kato won't be eager to oblige.
Kato recently spoke with MMAmania.com about his foray into the kickboxing world, his last fight under the Rizin FF banner, his preparations to face Matthews in Memphis and much more.
"This time I've been doing all the preparation in my hometown, so it's been easier for me. I have no injuries, my weight is good, my strength is good, my camp is going good -- everything's perfect for now."
With a stress-free camp both physically and mentally, Kato is expecting to put on a show for the Memphis fans.
"Well, it's a good match up, you know? We both like to stand and strike, and he's got some good highlights. I have my good highlights, too, so I think it's going to be an aggressive fight so, it's definitely going to be an interesting striking fight."
One of his most recent highlights was a fight with Yuta Watanabe in Rizin that ended with Kato scoring the technical knockout in one minute and five seconds. I asked Kato to talk about his Rizin experience.
"It was a bit different for me because it was MMA, but the Rizin rules are the old Pride rules. I was really excited about that first 10-minute round, and all of the soccer kick different rules, and because it was a Catchweight fight. I had to be lighter than usual so it was a big challenge, and it was in my city, Nagoya, so I really enjoyed that moment. It was really exciting and it ended well again so for me it was a really nice adventure."
Given Bellator allows its stars to work Rizin shows, it was an all-around success for Kato, who -- like he said -- fought in his home town; therefore, it's not surprising to hear he'd go back to Rizin again for another show.
"Well for now I have no offer, but why not? If they have a good offer and if Bellator lets me fight for Rizin again, why not? I like to fight in Japan -- it's really easy for me."
Kato also found success in the kickboxing world with his professional debut against Joe Schilling, so I wanted to know if he had completely ruled out a return to the ring.
"I had these MMA offers so, of course, I've been focusing on MMA after that kickboxing fight, but, I don't know. I enjoyed the kickboxing rules with the big gloves because it was quite exciting so I still feel that I should stick to MMA. I have some kickboxing coach(es) telling me I should try kickboxing too so I don't know. For now it's not in my mind but maybe I should not say 'never again' just maybe 'not for now'."
Meanwhile for Kato, it's no coincidence that Shlemenko returns at Bellator 162, which will undoubtedly have fight fans booking a fantasy match between the two if they both win.
"Well, you can call it coincidence if you want, but I don't know it could mean a lot of things. Maybe it could be my next fight I don't know. To tell the truth, for me he's definitely a stronger champion than the other (Middleweight) champs. If I had to face him I would take it like a title fight for me. I would take it really seriously."
That may have been a subtle dig at Rafael Carvalho, but before Kato can fight a former champion he rates higher than the current champion, he's got a versatile Matthews square in front of him at FedEx Forum.
"It's MMA, so you never know. Maybe he's going to change his plan and try to (take) me down, and I could do the same if I had the opportunity, but of course the high probability is we're going to punch each other in the face."
Given that's what Kato does best, I asked if he still gets a thrill out of being considered one of the best knockouts of 2015 and a staple of MMA highlight reels.
"Well, it's a great honor. Of course it's a great honor to have a nice highlight. For me, it's just a question about timing and position. If I have the timing and the position I'm not scared of trying some unorthodox movements. I think that's only the point. If I think I'm in a good timing, I will try what I think is a good option that my opponent is not prepared for. I'm not putting pressure on myself in that way that I have to make a super KO."
Whether he believes he has to make a "super KO" or not, those are the kinds of things both fans and matchmakers remember when it comes to earning a title shot. But, he's mindful of Shlemenko's return that night.
"I think it's going to depend on both of the fights. If I win and if Shlemenko wins (it's uncertain). If he lose(s) and I win then it's gonna be a different figure, it's really gonna depend on these two fights, so I can not really say. I would say (either way) I believe I'm maybe one more fight from the title."
There's one way to find out for sure -- tune in for both of their fights this Friday night on Spike TV.
Complete audio of our interview is below and complete Bellator MMA coverage can be found right here on fight night.